H2O water's edge
Luke Elwes
Will Maclean
Lino Mannocci
Clement McAleer
Ian Welsh
Anthony Whishaw

19 June ­11 July 2002
LONDON Main Gallery

Along the Waterline

We are told that water constitutes around 60% of the adult human frame, and three-quarters of the earthıs surface. It is the only substance found naturally in all three states of matter: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam). In its capacity as solvent, it is the main active force of geology. Life is said to have begun in water. There are more than a hundred compound words listed after Owater in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, my favourites being Owater-bloom and Owater hammer. This exhibition is dedicated to water, its appearance and essence, its contradictions and realities. Whether the works on show are to do with what Shakespeare called 'the rough rude sea', a Norwegian flash-flood or an English pond, their common territory and subject is water, the most mysterious of the elements.

Luke Elwes (b. 1961) is a painter-traveller, making pictures which are at once about the particular places he has visited and a record of that journey into self which is the lot of the true contemplative. In his recent
evocations of Osea Island off the Essex coast, Elwes maps the almost-submerged land where earth and sea not only meet but mingle intimately. He writes of the making of these elusive paintings (apparently empty yet full of detail) as encompassing 'the pursuit of silence, a balance between something and nothing, that holds the eye and stills the impulse to literal transcription'. The map is nearly erased, a distressed palimpsest; it's difficult to decipher a single clear meaning. The viewer must, like a scryer, read the signs and interpret accordingly.

Will Maclean (b. 1941) charts the age-old encounters between humanity and nature in all their tragic and poetic implications. He is perhaps best-known for those works which draw their substance from the everyday lives of communities who live and work by the sea. He takes objects authenticated by usage and reinterprets them, often through the delicate manipulations and sturdy juxtapositions of boxed assemblages. In Prisoner of the Tides, a caged lay-figure reclines breathlessly with a boat clutched to its chest. Ice Log refers to the Inuit custom of making a calendar by pegging poles in the ice. Maclean conjures with ideas and associations to navigate new mythological terrains.

Lino Mannocci (b. 1945) paints stories of the sea, proposing parables of ordinary life raised to heroic levels, suffused with pellucid Mediterranean light. He aspires to the high classical calm of Corot and Claude, yet at the same time courts the risk of metaphor by depicting the sea as ball or bowl or wall, as pyramid or desert. His Arcadia is aqueous, resisting definition, fraught with signs and planetary influences, subject to transformation and shape-shifting at a moment's notice should the unspoken narrative require it. Nevertheless, and despite the impression of restlessness, it has a strange rootedness, a physical fact in an uncertain age.

Clement McAleer (b. 1941) has poised his art between conceptual structure and the romantic swirling chaos of the sea. While it would be presumptuous to assume that the outer landscape echoes the artist's inner temperament, he has chosen to depict the battleground of Atlantic and Indian oceans, tracing the order in fluidity. Thinking of these unleashed energies, did he have Gerard Manley Hopkins in mind? 'And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow, / Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind; / Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow / Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps'². Hopes and fears are projected onto blue skies, blue seas ­ as much as onto the frozen north.

Ian Welsh (b. 1944) has painted water solely for the last 20 years, concentrating on the qualities of transparency and reflection, rather than the single view of landscape or the picturesque. He has taken as his subject gravity, atmosphere and the tensions set up between those things, and employs a complex studio technique which uses precisely these forces: gravity, air and water. He plots the movement of the microscopic and the macroscopic simultaneously in images of startling beauty. His procedures echo the way natural forms are shaped by the elements. As he points out, the fact that there are 18 million anglers in this country must say something about water's subliminal attraction. For those of us who want to know more, artists are there to research and reveal the meaning in the everyday.

Anthony Whishaw (b. 1930) has long painted the turbulence of the sea, with edgy close-ups of waves and spray. Equally, he paints marshland with all the delicacy and understated elegance of a Japanese master. When he paints the water's edge, the picture also moves to the edge of depiction/abstraction in an attempt to mirror the subject. These images are about the essence of water, made not from direct observation but from accumulated experience, and are as much about the process of painting as about the progress of water around a pond. The giant yellow blaze zigzagging through the centre of one picture is as much to do with reflected light as it is about moving the eye or mind around in a painting.

All of these artists set out to distil the water of life, in the sense of seeking spiritual or artistic enlightenment (the two more closely aligned that might be imagined), salvaging an image of calm from wild waters and sea-romp, or exploring a metaphor for the ageless and ephemeral. The range of work is rich and varied, but is there anything we've missed? 'Ah yes ­the sound of water slipping through fingers.'

Andrew Lambirth
London, May 2002